The Mississippi State Bulldogs have arrived at the end of a very difficult pandemic season. The optimism following the LSU win is a very distant memory and sensation.
By Matt Zemek
The grim reality of almost-nonstop losses, the Vanderbilt game being the one lonely exception, has turned this season into a laborious slog. Obviously, not having two nonconference games has prevented Mississippi State from reaching the .500 mark, but even then, the LSU win suggested this team’s ceiling was much higher than it actually was. It is a somewhat cruel plot twist that LSU just upset Florida, creating a moment which – though perhaps very temporary and fleeting – reminds everyone that LSU isn’t completely bereft of talent. Mississippi State defeated a team with some resources in Week 1. That makes the rest of the season feel even more disappointing.
However, to MSU’s credit, this team has continued to fight very hard for first-year coach Mike Leach. You can criticize many things about the Bulldogs, but not their heart. They sucked it up on defense and contained Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. That game did not turn into the blowout some SEC observers predicted it would be. Mississippi State lost to Auburn this past weekend, but the Tigers’ offense hardly ran wild. The Bulldogs’ defense kept it in check, a worthy performance even though the struggles of the offense are holding back MSU this year.
Let’s see what the Bulldogs can achieve against the Missouri Tigers. A win here would be an ideal springboard into the 2021 offseason and – eventually – a 2021 season in which the pandemic will recede and normal rhythms can once again become part of college football (not to mention the rest of America).
1 – Rush Hour
Mississippi State might not keep pace with Missouri if this game becomes a track meet, but it can certainly keep the Mizzou offense off the field. The problem is that MSU averages just 23 rushing yards per game. MSU doesn’t necessarily need to get 100 yards or 125 yards, but the Bulldogs need to be able to run the ball for first down on 3rd and 2. Can they at least do that much? Moving the chains to keep the ball is a necessity in this contest. The Bulldogs don’t need a dominant running game, but they at least need a functional one… and they haven’t had it for most of the season. Let’s see if this final game can create progress the Bulldogs take into 2021.
2 – Quarterback questions
Missouri’s Connor Bazelak torched the LSU defense much as Mississippi State did in the early part of the season. Bazelak has presided over some high-scoring Missouri games such as a 50-48 win over Arkansas. Yet, he and the Tigers scored just 17 points against South Carolina and just 14 against Georgia. Bazelak has been legitimately great when playing his best, but he has been conspicuously volatile this season. Mississippi State’s defense has played reasonably well the past month or so. The offense – not the defense – has been the main problem for Mike Leach. If the defense can force a few Bazelak turnovers and return them for scores (or something close to the end zone), there is a real path for victory for State in this contest.
3 – Tempo
Mike Leach doesn’t run a no-huddle offense, or to put it differently, running the Air Raid hardly implies or equates to a fast-paced offense. Yet, when one looks at the lack of success the Air Raid has enjoyed since the LSU game, maybe injecting an infusion of tempo is what this offense needs. The linemen aren’t overthinking. The quarterback grips it and rips it in the pocket. The defense might not have as much time to react. Mississippi State needs to employ something different in this game. It might not work, but it would at least give Leach more information to use as he heads into the offseason. Standing pat – doing nothing new – would be the worst sin in this game.